The pick of the pickers

Marty Blum, a Bronx cowboy, found that dropping out of college didn't handicap him in his chosen profession
December 04, 1978

Marty Blum (as in plum) is just an average walking-around, 30-year-old Jewish guy who lives in the Bronx with his mother, dresses like a cowboy and works as a racetrack handicapper for a newspaper owned by a church founded by a Korean. Eight months ago nobody knew Blum's name. Today he is a star. He has appeared on national television and been featured in newspaper columns. He cannot walk into one of New York City's Off-Track Betting parlors without getting mobbed. Bettors seek his advice at racetracks and touch his hat for luck.

Blum started life as a 3-to-1 shot, having been born in a leap year. When he was 13 his father took him to a racetrack for the first time, so what chance did a small boy have but to grow up to be a degenerate bettor? Which is how Blum describes himself. He did make a stab at going straight. At the age of 18 he enrolled in the City College of New York, taking night courses toward a degree in business administration. He lasted a year. "I dropped out," he says, "because it was conflicting with my betting at Yonkers Raceway at night."

In 1969, at the age of 21, Blum reached the nadir of his betting career. He took the Colts over the Jets, the Bullets over the Knicks and the Orioles over the Mets. He also bet $5,200, his bankroll, on Majestic Prince in the Belmont. He couldn't do anything right. "I had to go to a loan company after that," he says.

But Marty Blum's day was coming. While he waited for it, he got a job as terminal manager and dispatcher for the Z and Y Trucking Company in New York's garment district. He hated it. It was 2,000 headaches a day. It was a living. The fateful day drew closer last spring when the New York Racing Association announced it was staging a handicapping contest as a special promotion. Blum went for it. So did 39,000 other people. Entry forms were available to anyone walking into Belmont. Each contestant was given a theoretical $500 bankroll with which to bet. A win wager of no less than $20 and no more than $200 had to be bet on each of the nine races on the day's card.

The 50 entrants with the highest amounts won the first two days were invited back for the semifinals. Blum won in the semis and moved into the final field of 25. On the last day of the contest, he found himself in sixth place going into the last race. It was now or never. He bet his entire imaginary bankroll on a colt named Junction. The son of Never Bend won by seven lengths and Marty Blum won the $10,000 prize—which was in real money—and a silver trophy declaring him to be the "Best Handicapper in New York." It was only the beginning. To celebrate, he went to Las Vegas for "the best six days in my life," and picked up $15,000 at the crap tables.

One of the first things he did when he got back to New York was say goodby to Z and Y Trucking. A few days later he was strolling through his neighborhood in the Bronx when lightning struck a third time. "I was just walking along," Blum says, "and I had these two really dirty, crinkly old dollar bills in my pocket. There was this candy store there, so I went over and bought two baseball lottery tickets. I rubbed the spot on one of them where it tells you how much it's worth. It was $5,000. Then I rubbed the spot that tells you how many hits you got to get to win the $5,000. It was seven. Then I start rubbing the spots that tell you how many hits you have in each inning. It went like this: two, zero, two, zero, zero, zero, zero, two, one. The other ticket was for $50 and four hits, but I didn't win it, so I go over to the candy-store guy and say, 'Give me my money back, I lost.' " This is Blum's idea of humor.

He was to continue smiling. At the New York tracks he became a regular on Harvey Pack's closed-circuit television show. Pack is director of promotion for the NYRA and it was he who dreamed up the Best Handicapper contest. And it was he who made Blum the celebrity he is today.

"If I had ignored him after that contest," Pack says of Blum, "he'd have been a dead man. But I do these shows every week and I need guests, so I made Blum the villain." What Pack did was goad the fans and public handicappers (the professionals who handicap for newspapers) by saying things like, "Here he is, the best horseplayer in New York, the man who beat all of you." And Blum played along, raising his index finger and saying, "I'm No. 1. I'm the best."

Pack knew what he was doing. There were plans for a second handicapping contest in the fall and he wanted to make sure that there would be a lot of people out to get Blum. In the spring contest, all the public handicappers were in the finals, without having to go through the preliminaries and semis. Not one of them finished in the top four. There were a lot of bruised egos in the press box after that. "Handicapping is a big ego trip," says Pack. "I tell people on my show that the reason we are the No. 1 spectator sport in the country is the ego trip. You can come out here and have 30 losers in a row, and then one day you'll have a winner that pays $5, and from then on we own you."

Two months after winning the contest, Blum's status changed from amateur to professional. He was hired, for $20,000 a year, to be racetrack handicapper for the News World, a paper founded in New York by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's church. One month later the newspaper strike hit New York. Since the News World continued to publish, the strike helped Blum. None of the temporary papers covered racing. A horse-player might get a copy of Long Island's Newsday or the bible of the industry, the Daily Racing Form, but that was it.

As Blum says now, "Either you read Blum, or you didn't read." The gods continued to smile upon him. Right in the middle of the newspaper strike, Penn National racetrack near Harrisburg, Pa. invited Blum to enter its World Series of Handicapping contest. Public and amateur handicappers from all over the country and Canada competed over a three-day period for a prize of $12,500. The best in the business were entered. Andy Beyer of the Washington Post, Bill Boniface of the Baltimore Sun and Russ Harris of the New York Daily News were just a few of the 25 pros Blum was up against. The other 24 were amateurs. Blum won. He returned to New York and changed the headline over his picks in the News World from THE TEN GRAND SPECIAL to THE TWELVE GRAND SPECIAL. "Now I'm the greatest," said Blum. "I'm surely No. 1, the best handicapper in the world."

Came November and it was time for the NYRA's Invitational Handicapper's Challenge II. As defending champion, Blum was automatically a finalist. More than 50,000 people entered. The rules were altered slightly. This time the public handicappers had to go through the same eliminations everyone else did. You also couldn't bet more than half your bankroll on any one race. The finals were at Aqueduct on Nov. 18 and 19. Twenty-five people competed. At the end of the first day Blum wasn't in the top 10. He had only $188 left of his original imaginary bankroll of $500.

He waved his dead cigar around and expostulated. "One hundred and eighty-eight bucks. That's a fortune. I once came to Aqueduct with under $200 in my pocket, and when I walked out at the end of the day, I had $7,000." His brother Paul, an electronics engineer and fellow bettor, looked horrified. "You want to just mail that information right in to the IRS, or what?" Blum shrugged. Nothing worried him. He was confident he could win. By the end of the second race on the final day of the contest, he was down to $90. He was wearing his usual outfit, a two-tone Western-style shirt hanging over baggy jeans, which were hanging over pointy-toed cowboy boots. His Stetson was planted firmly on his head, the sides of the brim rolled up just so.

Blum couldn't walk through the clubhouse without being stopped every few feet by someone in need of advice. "Hey, Marty," a guy shouted, "who do you have in the fifth?" Blum told him. "I believe in being nice to people," he said. A scruffy-looking bettor who hadn't shaved in three days was hanging around the rail outside the clubhouse. "Hey, Marty," he yelled, "I'm going to Texas on this race. Ask me what that means." "O.K.," Blum said, "what does it mean?" "El Paso," came the reply. Blum smiled—a little.

Blum admits to being terrible at remembering people's names. He only remembers numbers and the names of horses. He called the scruffy-looking bettor Mr. Dirt (although not to his face). Blum said the man is allergic to water and hasn't washed in four years. "Hey. Marty," Mr. Dirt shouted, "Galetti [who was leading the contest] didn't pick nothing that wasn't obvious. He wasn't inventive or creative, you know what I mean?" Blum heaved himself up onto the railing. "Galetti's got class," he said. "He only got 10 out of the last 12, right? Tell me about it. You can't take nothing away from him."

At the end of the fifth race, Blum had parlayed his $90 up to $130.50. He still had hopes, and things started to look a little better after he hit in the sixth to up his bankroll to $416. For the first time all day, his name got on the board, in 10th place. He decided to make a big plunge, so he bet $199 on the nine horse in the seventh.

Blum said, "At least we're giving them a run, right? If Miss Marty comes in, I bet $1,000 on the next race and I win, right?" Wrong. Miss Marty, No. 9, went off at 5 to 1 and finished second by a head. It was all over for Blum. He was gracious in defeat. He also had $600 in real money in his pocket. He may have lost the contest, but he'd been winning at the windows all day.

An amateur handicapper and professional bettor named Norman Ostrov, who has a degree in psychology, was the new champion. Blum presented the $10,000 check to him on Harvey Pack's show and made a little speech. Afterward someone asked him how he felt. "I'm happy," he said. "I won two out of three. I'm working. I won real cash. What more do I want?"